Café Frankenstein

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Café Frankenstein

During the 50’s the pre hippie era was shaped by the Beats and the Bohemian surf culture

Geez, do we live in not only the most beautiful place on earth but is also a place that is so rich in talented/eccentric people that shape American culture.

This story is about the late 50’s beatnik era in Laguna and how they shaped America’s music, art, movie/TV making, sci-fi, literature, occults, poetry, drug use, surfing and much, much more.

This story blew me away. I finally had to stop researching it since it was an endless abyss. I provided a lot of links on my web page if you want to follow the lives and accomplishments of characters of this story. Lots of major names. Click here

Summary:

  • In 1956 at the corner of Thalia and Coast Hwy at 860 S. Coast (where the Stand and car repair shop is) artists Burt Shonberg, Doug Myres (the Gateway Singers) and writer George Clayton Johnson (first Star Trek episode, Twilight Zone, Logan’s Run, Oceans 11) opened a beat coffee house called Café Frankenstein. Shonberg provided a Frankenstein stained-glass window – more on that later.
  • Cafe Frankenstein boasted a steady diet of beats, surfers, folkies, teens and all manner of weirdoes, and was suspected of harboring drugs and other debauchery. For two years straight, a pair of undercover cops were regulars at the Frankenstein, looking for a bust. But according to the last owner, Michael Schley, they instead became avid supporters.
  • The Frankenstein’s steady diet of controversy started early, with police busts for spiking the espresso with brandy and for allowing a woman to be photographed nude against the inside murals. Both charges were eventually dropped, but the damage had been done. The last straw was when the local ladies Church League came down on them for creating a stained-glass window of the Frankenstein monster. The Church League claimed that stained glass was only for use in the church, and rallied the community against the Frankenstein. Owner Burt Shonberg threatened to erect a crucified Frankenstein dummy in front of the coffeehouse, if they didn’t back off. They did back off, but it became harder to get kids in the door, as parents forbade them from going in.
  • It sold in 1960 to the sandal maker who was next door and lasted a couple more years.
  • Please peruse the people and their accomplishments in the ‘hap hazard’ compilation of write-ups I put on my web site. If you google anyone of the characters you’ll see how they all went on to keep producing leading edge stuff in all areas of our culture. Click here

“What I remember about the Frankenstein,” said artist Leonard Kaplan, who died in 2008, “was the taboo that the community of Laguna felt about it.” Kaplan, who lived behind Café Frankenstein during and after the coffeehouse’s existence, was no stranger to controversy.

An intensely private man, Kaplan was a dealer in pre-Renaissance art and a painter of haunted and erotic canvases that mixed the traditional world of oils with elements of taxidermy to create portraits of psychological terror, doubt, lust and violence. It is little surprise that Kaplan’s work was only assessed after his death (an exhibit was held at the Laguna Art Museum in 2009), but not surprising at all that he was associated with the Café Frankenstein.

“At first,” Kaplan related, “I thought these guys were a bunch of hucksters, ballyhoo and all. They were into jazz, I liked classical. But despite Laguna Beach being a supposed ‘artists town,’ I sensed in them a genuine outsider spirit.” Kaplan wasn’t alone. In fact, the Frankenstein became a literal mecca for area artists whose work was on the fringes.

Don Karwellis, who later became head of the art department at the University of California Fullerton, created Toulouse-Lautrec style paintings of the Café Frankenstein scene. Tom Holste, whose later works were hung at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, cut his teeth early on at the Frankenstein, painting airbrush portraits and abstracts on stretched canvas.

“Laguna Beach had a number of artists at that time,” remembers Lewis Baltz, an important figure in the New Topographic movement of the late 1970s, who was a regular at the Frankenstein during his teenage years. “[These were] overwhelmingly seascape painters whose work seemed destined for furniture stores. There was also a very small group of ‘serious’ abstract painters. They were counter-culture avant le mot, but not exactly beatniks.”

“The only artist who looked like a beatnik,” continues Baltz, “was Andy Wing, a tall, gentle and shaggy man whose skein-like paintings showed a distinct influence of Pollock.”

Many of Wing’s murals can still be seen all over Laguna Beach today. Besides painting abstracts and making collages at Café Frankenstein, Wing turned his own Laguna Beach home into a folk environment of assemblage art in a similar style to Albert Glade’s Enchanted Garden (1927-35) in Chino, CA, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (1921-54) in South Central Los Angeles and Grandma Prisby’s Bottle Village (1956-81) in Simi Valley. To this day, Wing’s house — with its strewn pieces of colored glass, walkways of assembled broken pottery and strange collage paneling — sits back amongst tall-growing weeds along a back street just off the beach. Inside, a TV is constantly running, but no one ever answers the door.

Besides its collective of regularly-attending artists, the Café Frankenstein also boasted its share of quality bohemian music. Irishman Michael Gaffney, whom Baltz describes as “a petty thief and small-time drug dealer who had been in and out of jails since he was old enough to steal,” played a particular brand of acoustic blues inside the Frankenstein.

“It depends on what your definition of ‘performance’ is,” says John Merrill, who played guitar in a psychedelic rock group dubbed the Peanut Butter Conspiracy from 1966-69. “I mean, the place was so small there wasn’t even a stage. People would just sit on couches or sing from the corner of the room, real loose and all.”

Other musical artists who played Café Frankenstein include future surf instrumental giant Dave Myers, folk chanteuse Judy Henske (who dated Woody Allen during the early ’60s and inspired Allen’s Annie Hall character) and Lee Mallory, a runaway from the Inland Empire who later became guitarist of psych-pop act, the Millennium. Steve Gillette, who placed two songs on the first Linda Ronstadt/Stone Poneys album and played guitar on the second, wrote of Café Frankenstein in the liner notes to his 1967 solo album:

“It was while I was working at the doughnut shop (the hours were 3 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and living in Whittier, California, that I used to drive down to a little coffee house — now defunct — at Laguna Beach to listen to folk music.”

At other times, jazz guitarist Johnny Saint and flamenco guitarists such as Lenin Castro and a young Jose Feliciano played at the Frankenstein. “We also had a black conga drummer named Bob Collins,” remembers Michael Schley, “and this guy named Philipo, who walked around with a typewriter and would type a bio or personality sketch for a buck.” Philipo was actually Jack Phillips, a would-be TV personality who also called himself “John San Felipe.” But more often than not, it was Doug Myres, co-owner of the Frankenstein, who provided the entertainment.

By the time Café Frankenstein opened in 1958, Myres had already been a member of the Gateway Singers, a racially-integrated folk group who in 1950 were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), alongside New York City’s the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger), both bands accused of communist sympathizing (both cases later dismissed). After that, Myres became rhythm guitarist for the Easy Riders (featuring Terry Gilkyson, who wrote the huge-selling folk hit, “Marianne”), before opening the Frankenstein, where he would show up for performances in a hearse.

“It was a way-station between insanity and sanity,” says Michael Schley, “a portal of life that people passed through. It was supposed to close at 4 a.m., but it rarely did. Burt and Doug also didn’t shy away from controversy. They invited it.”

From the outset, Café Frankenstein seemed to be a target for local police scrutiny. In an article titled “The Café Espresso Kick,” the June 1959 issue of Rogue magazine declared: “The local ladies’ church league later complained of the use of stained glass in such a macabre undertaking, but withdrew their objections hastily when Frankenstein’s owner threatened to erect a full-size cross bearing the unhappy monster.” That incident merely scratched the surface.

On March 10, 1959, Laguna police hauled George Clayton Johnson, model Freda Kellogg and photographer Ron Vogel off to jail after receiving a tip that a group of kids saw Kellogg posing nude and playing bongos against the coffeehouse’s interior mural artwork. The kids had apparently been peeking through the window cracks and reported their guffaws to local law officers, who also seized the photography negatives (which were later used in Escapade magazine’s December 1959 issue). Said Judge C.C. Cravath at the trio’s hearing bearing indecent exposure, exhibitions and willful and lewd actions, held Tuesday April 14th: “I see a willful act, but don’t see anything lewd involved.” Case dismissed.

“That wasn’t the first time we’d gone to court,” insisted Sid Soffer, Café Frankenstein’s manager from 1958 to the summer of ’59, who passed away in 2008. “I got arrested for supposedly selling alcoholic beverages without a liquor license.”

According to reports in the Laguna Beach Post dated June 26, 1958, Judge Cravath also heard this case. “Basically, I was putting a little brandy extract in the Cappuccino Royal,” recalled Soffer. “It was so little that the alcohol pretty much evaporated when it was steamed. They tested it and everything in the courtroom.” The case, again, was dismissed. “They were out to get us from day one,” insisted Soffer. “We didn’t stand a chance.”

Despite not being a co-owner, Soffer was there from the outset. As part of the Laguna Carpentry Company, Soffer helped build the structure. Once he came to manage Café Frankenstein, Soffer cut a wall out on the south side of the coffeehouse and built a doorway for the patio. “I was the cook too,” Soffer remembered fondly. “We served sandwiches, Italian water ices, French pastries from the Sarno Bakery in Hollywood, Dutch pastries from Almondas, lots of great little bistro items.”

A few months after the nudity case, the Frankenstein again saw trouble. The Laguna Beach Board of Supervisors declared the coffeehouse outside the defined entertainment zone, thus rebuking their license to allow live music, accepting only solo piano or organ.

“I got them to allow one instrument,” said Soffer regarding the ordinance. “That was my last contribution to the café. It was passed that only piano and organ were allowed, but by getting it to be any one instrument, we could keep folk singers and bongo drums going.”

By the end of the summer of 1959, Soffer left Café Frankenstein to start his own coffeehouse, the Blue Beet, at 460 S. Coast Boulevard in Laguna Beach. By 1960, Soffer moved his café out of Laguna, up to the nearby town of Newport Beach, where Sid’s Blue Beet still operates near the Newport Pier to this day.

With the 1950s coming to a close, so too came the time for Johnson, Myres and Shonberg to move on. The trio sold Café Frankenstein to Michael Schley, who by that time was married to Constance Vining.

Vining had been running a sandal shop behind the Frankenstein (at 866 S. Coast Boulevard). Designs in Leather opened first in 1952 out of Vining’s home in the Treasure Island Trailer Court, but moved into the Frankenstein building in 1958 and featured Shonberg mural art, as well.

Whatever attempts Laguna had made to kill off the monster, by the end of 1959, the town’s youth was swept up in a more innocuous version of the bohemian phenomena. On December 10, 1959, the sophomore class at Laguna High School collectively decided to have a “beatnik day,” sporting berets and sunglasses with black turtlenecks for the guys and black leotards for the girls. The Laguna Beach Post was again there to capture the moment with a front page snap. In early 1960, even the Laguna Playhouse was putting on John Osborne’s disaffected play, Look Back in Anger, with its announced cast of “angry young men.”

From 1960 to 1962, Michael Schley and Connie Vining ran Café Frankenstein simply as the 860 Club. “We lasted for a little while,” laments Schley. “But once Shonberg was gone, everything that made the place unique went with it.” Asked why that was, Schley suggests several reasons: “For one, Shonberg kept it edgy. But, see, he was getting steady movie work and commercial work in Hollywood. With the way the town of Laguna was harassing him, you could hardly blame him for leaving.”

After the 860 Club closed in 1962, Vining’s Designs in Leather continued. But by 1964, both were gone, the building then razed and turned into a parking lot. Schley moved up to Hollywood for a while and ran the Xanadu Coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue, near Los Angeles City College, which hosted no less talent than bluesman John Lee Hooker, folk legend Pete Seeger and poet Charles Bukowski.

As for George Clayton Johnson, he began writing for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone (eight episodes in all), as well the original Rat Pack vehicle, Ocean’s Eleven (1960), the first episode of Star Trek (1966) and the classic science fiction novel, Logan’s Run, which became an MGM film in 1976.

Burt Shonberg, by far the most interesting of the artists surrounding Café Frankenstein, continued creating commercial illustrations, mural commissions and fine art during the early 1960s. His album artwork for Ron Goodwin’s space-age bachelor pad LP, Music in Orbit (1958), features a pen and ink drawing of an Oz-like craft whose physiology combines a floating balloon apparatus with attached woodwind instruments and preternatural symbols, operating like a steam era piece of machinery. Childlike and esoteric at once, Shonberg’s imaginative genius saw its full consummation of influences in one fell swoop: Outer-space, inner-mysticism and bohemian abstraction.

His portrait of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, used on the cover of Capitol Records’ 1960 Pathetique, 6th Symphony, seems emblematic of Shonberg’s style from 1960-62. Melding 18th Century impressionism with hints of cubism, the canvas becomes all Shonberg with the use of three dimensional splashes of casein color. Symbolic imagery bursts from the Russian composer’s head like living spirits of creativity. The burgundy, mustard yellow, black and powder blue hues were shades that Shonberg utilized heavily during this period, also creating a haunted portrait of Jesus Christ, who in the hands of Shonberg looks like a deeply tormented humanoid. Christ’s bald cranium is enlargened and his hallowed-out eye sockets speak a kind of expressionistic terror.

Shonberg also created similar portraits for Roger Corman’s American International Pictures film of Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher (1962). Indeed, Shonberg’s Usher paintings live and breathe horror, like everything in the house, the results for its characters being catastrophic. Shonberg also created a grand canvas titled “Premature Burial” for a 1960 film of the same name. The painting views like a complex rendering of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Previously, Shonberg had been the art director on such B films as Code of Silence (1957) and The Brain Eaters (1958).

He’d also kept busy creating murals for other coffeehouses and bohemian emporiums throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Among these were: Cosmo Alley in Downtown Hollywood, Sandalsville on Fairfax Avenue, the Seven Chefs and the Bastille (both in West Hollywood), the Purple Onion on the Sunset Strip and the 40 Thieves Café in Venice Beach.

In 1963, Shonberg moved to Paris with Valerie Porter, who introduced him to Pablo Picasso. From Paris, the three of them went on to Ibiza, where Shonberg was then introduced to Salvador Dali by Porter. Shonberg returned to the U.S. in 1965 and settled for a while in Greenwich Village, where he took part in a group art show titled “Psychedelic Art” at the Coda Gallery in nearby East Village. By year’s end, Shonberg was back in Southern California.

Only four commercial pieces of art by Shonberg are known post-1963. One is a silly advertisement for filmmaker Don Brown’s Surfhouse, a teenage surf movie theater that boasts a surfin’ woodie printed with Shonberg’s inimitable mystic symbols all over. The second is the cover to Arthur Lee and Love’s 1969 album, Out Here, which is really just a gatefold of Shonberg’s 1965 painting of the same name. The piece portrays a human figure sitting at the edge of a hill, when off in the horizon the sky opens up to him, striking a symbiotic relationship between the figure, the earth and the sky that is something of a psychedelic era rococo. Then there was an album cover for the Curtis Brothers’ self-titled debut on Polydor Records (1976), which utilized Shonberg’s 1965 painting titled “Seated Figure and a Cosmic Train,” described by Marshall Berle as “a self-portrait of Burt Shonberg sitting in his living room in Laurel Canyon during an LSD experience.” Finally, Shonberg created artwork for Spirit’s The Spirit of 76 – Tampa Jam – Electro Jam from the Time Coast album, based around a friendship that had blossomed between Shonberg and Spirit guitarist Randy California.

All throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Shonberg created wildly psychedelic and harrowingly spiritual artworks on canvas, wooden boards, music notation paper, napkins and just about any surface he could find. Sadly, very little of Shonberg’s art has been exhibited as of this writing, though those who own Shonberg’s artwork hold onto it dearly.

Marshall Berle has attempted to create a Burt Shonberg museum, but thus far has just gotten a web site off the ground. Ledru Baker Shoopman retained Shonberg’s personal portfolio, which contained hundreds of sketches and personal clues about Burt’s life. However, since Shoopman’s passing in 2007, his long-time girlfriend Joie has not returned phone calls. Shonberg did have one solo exhibition during his lifetime. Inside his portfolio was a poster for a 1967 show (sponsored by George Grief) at the Gallery Contemporary at 631 N. La Cienega Boulevard, in the central arts district of L.A.

Burt Shonberg died on September 16, 1977. His artwork has yet to be exhibited in a museum setting. Perhaps Shonberg’s full curatorial embrace is denied because the work stands too far outside the art/historical narrative. Indeed, despite a lavish use of pop culture iconography and skilled abstract brushwork, Shonberg considered himself an illustrator by trade and a classicist by temperament. His interest in courting the fine art establishment was perhaps latent and largely absent.

From today’s perspective, the centerpiece of all this remains the Frankenstein monster, a vernacular symbol of such pathos that its stoicism abides as a cornerstone for both pop culture fantasmagorians and literary elites alike. Shonberg chose to emblazon his own coffeehouse with the somber monster as a spokesperson for the entire arc of human experience, the same as Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of Ancient Greece, did for Achilles in Book 18 of The Illiad, commemorating with a shield the extremes of war and emotion in a richly detailed work of art. Life’s events, after all, are not ordered chronologically. They correspond rather to an inner architecture of collected experiences, rendered in art by those who live to tell the story. Burt Shonberg left his hidden, in plain sight.

NOTE: This article originally published in the Outre Gallery Journal (Sydney, Australia), issue #1, published July 2012.

Brian Chidester is the author of Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Era (Santa Monica Press) and the co-editor of Dumb Angel magazine. He currently lives in New York City and writes for the Village Voice .

Quoted excerpts from the book Out Here have been reprinted by permission of the copyright owner at www.burtshonberg.com .

The name of the coffee house “Cafe Frankenstein” was created by George Clayton Johnson

©2012 George Clayton Johnson ©2012 CafeFrankenstein.com – All Rights Reserved


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Sean McCracken

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